It is a pity that religious authorities in Malaysia are once again adopting a punitive approach in dealing with the well-known Malaysian writer, Kassim Ahmad. He was charged in the Syariah High Court in Putrajaya yesterday (27 March 2014) with “disparaging Islam” and “failure to abide by the religious authorities’ instructions” at a seminar in the city in the middle of February this year. The paper Kassim presented at the seminar is allegedly the basis for the charges against him.

It will be recalled that in the eighties and nineties the religious authorities had also used the law and fatwas (religious opinions) against Kassim.

It would have been much better if bodies such as JAWI (the Islamic Department of the Federal Territory) and JAKIM (the Department of Islamic Development, Malaysia) had chosen to discuss what they deem to be Kassim’s “deviant” views with him in a rational manner. After all, Kassim had agreed on 22 February 2014 to meet with officials from JAKIM for a discussion.

It is discussion and dialogue — not punishment and prohibition — which should be the guiding principle of our religious bureaucrats. The 2P approach associated with the religious bureaucracy in Malaysia and certain other countries has inhibited the growth of a more dynamic and progressive understanding of Islam. It runs counter to the true character of Islam as a faith that cherishes thought and reflection. Indeed, reflection upon nature, social realities and the human physiology itself is encouraged in Islam as one of the conduits through which one strengthens faith in God.

It is thinking and reflection that Kassim is committed to. I recognise this even though I do not agree with some of his writings and pronouncements. Some of the issues involved may be fundamental to the faith; others may not be at the core of Islam. Those that are not, should be viewed as differences in interpretation which are part and parcel of any belief-system. Differences of this sort, according to a saying of the Prophet (Hadith), are a divine blessing.

Acceptance of differences is a vital pre-requisite for the intellectual development of the Ummah (Muslim world). Religious bureaucrats who are unwilling to accept differences in viewpoints often see themselves as the sole arbiters of the truth. Anyone who seeks to establish a monopoly over the truth is a danger to society!

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